The Valiant by Lesley Livingston
Publication Date: February 14, 2017
Rating: 5 stars
Source: eARC from Edelweiss/ARC
Summary (from Goodreads):
Lost to history, the story of the female gladiator has never been told. Until now.
Fallon is the daughter of a proud Celtic king and the younger sister of the legendary warrior Sorcha. When Fallon was just a child, Sorcha was killed while defending their home from the armies of Julius Caesar.
On the eve of her seventeenth birthday, Fallon is excited to follow in her sister's footsteps and earn her place in her father's war band. She never gets the chance.
Fallon is captured by ruthless brigands who sell her to an elite training school for female gladiators owned by none other than Julius Caesar himself. In a cruel twist of fate, the man who destroyed Fallon's family might be her only hope of survival.
Now, Fallon must overcome vicious rivalries, deadly fights in and out of the arena, and perhaps the most dangerous threat of all: her irresistible feelings for Cai, a young Roman soldier and her sworn enemy.
A richly imagined fantasy for fans of Sarah J. Maas and Cinda Williams Chima, "The Valiant" recounts Fallon s gripping journey from fierce Celtic princess to legendary gladiator and darling of the Roman empire."
What I Liked:
This book was incredible. I've not read any book - Young Adult or Adult - featuring female gladiators, so I was immediately intrigued, upon reading the premise. Discovering this book was truly a blessing, because this book was every bit as ferocious and kickbutt as the synopsis and the hype promised. I'm honestly stunned.
Fallon is the second daughter of the Celt king of the Cantii tribe of Prydain (Britain). Her older sister Sorcha was captured and killed by Romans years ago, and Fallon has grown up hating the Romans and desiring vengeance. Fallon is a fierce fighter, and wants to be a warrior of her father's war band. But she is captured by slavers, who take her to Rome and sell her to a woman who trains female gladiators. The Ludus Achillea is filled with girls Fallon's age, who have been trained to be gladiators to serve Julius Caesar. Fallon must train to be deadly and vicious, in order to survive fighting in an arena, like all of the the other female gladiators of Ludus Achillea. Fallon must put aside her thirst for vengeance against Rome in order to survive and fighter for her freedom.
The first thing I want to say is that this book is nothing like Sarah J. Maas's (note the last line of the synopsis on Goodreads, also copied above). Maas's heroines (any of them, in any series) pale in comparison to Fallon and her fellow gladiators. I've always thought Maas's heroines were weak, and they definitely appear so, compared to the highly skilled ladies of this novel. I'm only bringing up Maas and her characters because of the synopsis above - don't let that "comparison" trick you. This book is nothing like Maas's, and for the better.
From the start, I liked Fallon, and was cheering for her. She is turning seventeen, and she is going to make a bid to her father to be a part of his war band, like her sister had years ago. But she is captured, dragged across lands and seas, sold, and then trained to be an even better fighter than she was. Fallon never loses her intense, defiant spirit. She was made and destined to be a gladiator, with her intelligence, defiance, persistence, and skill. Fallon isn't a merciless killer, and she is not without honor. I liked how human she was, how much she had to learn, and how far she had to become, in order to be a noticeable gladiator.
She grows so much, emotionally and mentally as well. Being captured and taken from her beloved home and loved ones strikes an incredible amount of anger in Fallon's heart (as it should). But Fallon begins to realize that the world is so much larger than her Cantii tribe, and that there is more to Rome than she ever thought. I loved seeing Fallon mature as the story progressed. The book takes place over months, possibly a year or more, so it's a long time for a lot of character development (and Livingston delivers).
The world-building of this story is so beautifully written. I felt like I was in the ancient times, especially throughout Fallon's journey from Prydain to Rome. The descriptions of Rome, the markets, the warriors, the clothing - everything seemed incredibly realistic to the time period. It's clear that Livingston did her research very well.
I am such a fan of the sisterhood and female friendships of this book. From the start, we know that Fallon deeply misses her sister Sorcha, and has mourned her death for years. Fallon is captured and chained to another captive, Elka, and while they don't hit it off at first, Elka and Fallon become friends during the journey. They are sold together to Lady Achillea, and train together. Their friendship, along with others, is powerful. It was especially encouraging to see this strong relationship, when not all of the female gladiators were intent on being part of the "sisterhood" of the Ludus Achillea. There are ruthless rivalries, and Fallon finds herself amidst several almost immediately upon entering the ludus.
I looove the romance! It's amazing, the journey Fallon is taken through, and not just her journey to becoming a gladiator. She doesn't expect to fall for a Roman decurion, and pretty much resists the attraction and feelings of affections that bloom, at first. It's somewhat of a hate-to-love romance, at least on Fallon's end. I think Caius Varro was intrigued by Fallon from the start, even when she tried to kill him. I loved their dynamic. Caius never tries to dominate or own Fallon, and he sees her as his equal. The progression of their feelings and whatnot is somewhat slow and subtle, and I loved it. Things do get a little heated but I also liked how the romance was not at the forefront at any point in the book. No love triangle!
Caius is probably my second or third favorite character of the book. He is an extremely skilled, extremely powerful Roman officer, and he is often at the academy, reporting for Caesar. He seems arrogant at first, but as the pair fall for each other, Fallon can see that he has her best interests at heart. He is a good man and an excellent match for her, in terms of personality and temperament. Did I mention that I'm a little in love with him? Swoooon.
The story builds to an epic showdown in which we finally get to see Fallon's skills and training be tested, as a true gladiator. She is fighting for Caesar, and the stakes are very high for her. The ending of the book gets very fast-paced and very thrilling. The whole book is well-paced and extremely engrossing, but the last quarter picks up speed.
The ending is perfect! There are elements that are extremely wonderful, and elements that are purposefully open-ended. I love that some things are hinted at, and you kind of have to imagine what life will be like in the future, for Fallon and ____ and _____, etc. But I also love that some things are very concrete ad permanent. I'm especially thrilled about something developments. I love that this book is a standalone, because it ends really neatly, and while I wouldn't mind seeing more from this world, I'm glad Fallon's story ends here!
What I Did Not Like:
I really can't think of anything worth mentioning, that I didn't like! You can probably tell how much I enjoyed the book. It swept me off my feet!
Would I Recommend It:
Historical fiction fan or not, I highly recommend this book! I don't tend to give super high ratings like this one often, but when I do, it's usually for an amazing book that is a new favorite. Female gladiators kicking butt should be enough to reel anyone in, but throw in the politics and intrigue of Julius Caesar and ancient Rome, some incredible world-building, an engrossing plot, a swoony (and forbidden) romance, and a fantastic ending, and you've got a winner.
4.5 stars -> rounded up to 5 stars. That did not take long! Only twenty-three days into the new year and I've handed out my first five-star rating. Granted, this is the thirteenth book I've read for the year already. Honestly, I would have been so disappointed had I not enjoyed this book, and I'm glad it turned out to be every bit as sensational as everyone said. The hype is strong with this one, and rightfully so!
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